field report no.110916

SUBJECT: Zeena Parkins

Jazz harpists are rare. Avant-minded, free-improv ones are scarcer yet. Being all of the above, Zeena Parkins has made herself veritable fixture of the downtown NYC improv scene for decades—appearing on hundreds of records and a player titans like John Zorn, Fred Frith and Elliott Sharp frequently trust. The number of sides she's led is a (relatively) small clutch of those, but a few of those records have grown into touchstone documents for me—Nightmare AlleyThe Adorables and virtually anything by Phantom Orchard.

Disappointingly, I've only managed to see her live a handful of times since I came to NYC. Luckily though, this night was two sets. First up was a solo set. Even though she wasn't playing her trademark electric harp, the performance was by no means traditional: she filtered her classical harp through delays, and filters to expand and distort its presence. The second set was a new group she'd assembled, Green Dome, featuring a percussionist and a pianist / electrician. The joys of each set were unique. There's a certain austerity and poise to her solo sets, while In group settings, she swings (albeit, unconventionally) and is granted more space to make a much broader, gestural performance.

NOTES: Zeena Parkins solo; Green Dome: ZP, Ryan Ross Smith, Ryan Sawyer

Something Out There

Zeena Parkins, 1987

I'll admit, I would have preferred one of Zeena's solo albums, but surprisingly, none of them are available on vinyl. It's times like this I want to start my own reissue label—if only to fill such gaps in my own collection, if not correct history. Luckily, if Something Out There isn't solo, it is an avant garde potpurri of downtown NYC in the 80s: Ikue Mori, Christian Marclay, Tom Cora, Wayne Horvitz… It's filled with spazzed takes of instrumental avant rock, merging Zorn's freewheeling, game-theory improv with the outer reaches of post-punk, like the Pop Group. An open embrace of chaos and dissonance—far outside of rock's language—is carried forward by a stumbly, punkish energy.